Rasmus Ristolainen said the six losing seasons he’s endured since the Buffalo Sabres drafted him with the eighth overall pick in 2013 have been difficult mentally, that change is inevitable when a franchise continues to fail to make the playoffs, and that players on the team need to hold each other more accountable.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenseman was the first player to offer public comments and the first to depart the locker room Monday, a day after the Sabres fired coach Phil Housley.
“Obviously, it’s tough to see people leaving,” Ristolainen said, “but when you don’t reach your goals, changes can happen and should happen.”
Ristolainen, 24, finished the season with an NHL-worst rating of minus-41, which isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of his overall performance, but is the second-worst mark by any player since the 2005 lockout and tied for the worst in franchise history. New York Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy was minus-42 last season. Hall of Fame center Gilbert Perreault posted a minus-41 rating for the Sabres in 1971-72, his second season in the league.
Ristolainen seemed uncertain about whether he needs a change of scenery or wants to remain with the Sabres, though his contract situation is secure and he said Buffalo is his home. He is under contract for three more seasons with an annual cap hit of $5.4 million.
“Honestly, I know changes will happen and sometimes you can’t control (them)…” Ristolainen said. “But I feel the season ended two days ago and I’ve only been focusing (on) every day. (I) don’t think about the future. It’s too early to say what’s going to happen …
“These six years, they’ve been the most difficult, mentally. And being a young guy who lives by yourself, I think it’s been tough times, but I feel that it’s going to grow me as a person and player. Right now, I appreciate winning a lot in this league. It’s hard. It doesn’t just (happen). You have to earn it. You have to work every night so hard for it, and mentally it’s been tough, but I’ve always done everything the hard way in my life. Nothing comes easy.”
Ristolainen said there weren’t just one or two reasons why the Sabres collapsed this season, tumbling from the best record in the NHL on Nov. 28 to the fifth-worst mark by the end of the season. But he was able to point out a few ways he thinks the team can improve.
“We still need to get tighter, play better and hold each other more accountable,” Ristolainen said.
Ristolainen further explained that last remark by offering an answer reminiscent of Housley’s comments in February, when the coach called the team “soft.”
“I think winning, it’s tough,” Ristolainen said, “and maybe I would like to see sometimes in practice or in the room, when you guys don’t see guys going after each other, you know… It’s not easy to win here. Everyone in the room should be hard on each other.”
Ristolainen recorded 43 points (five goals, 38 assists) this season, the second-best mark of his career. But he continues to struggle with his decision-making and awareness, in one-on-one puck battles along the boards despite his size and strength, and with turning the puck over in his own zone.
Ristolainen played an average of 24 minutes, 38 seconds per game, leading the Sabres in 5-on-5 and power-play ice time while playing on the right side of their top defensive pairing.
It was nevertheless his least amount of ice time since his second season in the league, when he posted his previous career-worst of minus-32.
Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Ristolainen ranks last in the NHL with a minus-143 rating – 46 worse than any other player – in 424 games, despite recording 194 points during that span. Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the next worst in that span at minus-97.
“He is such an asset on the ice,” Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill said about Ristolainen on Sunday. “You see it especially in games against Tampa Bay or against Washington. When he has that responsibility to play against another team’s top player or play that physical role, he can be really effective there. And I think in the last month here or so, he didn’t play as well as he anticipated or wanted to. He was dealing with some illness, too, which was a factor.
“But you look at what we’re trying to create with our D corps. It’s why we were so adamant about the development of Rasmus Dahlin. It’s why we went out to get Brandon Montour, is we’re trying to build a more successful D corps but also more depth on our D corps. And one of the disappointing things for us, was just after Brandon came to the organization, we didn’t have many games over the last month where there were six guys healthy.”
Ristolainen said pointing fingers does little good, and that the best thing he can do is work to improve his game.
“I have to be a better player and try to reach the next level, because I feel I haven’t and I trust I can,” Ristolainen said. “I can control only myself and I’ve got to be better.”
But he’s unsure how to accomplish that goal.
“I don’t think I’m going to change too much about training and getting better,” Ristolainen said. “I have my way to get better and you know, maybe it’s mental stuff. I feel it’s not about my shape or conditioning. It’s the on-ice stuff, maybe. I haven’t really skated that much early in the summer. Maybe I’ve got to think about doing more on-ice stuff, mental stuff. I think the gym, it’s always been there, and I don’t think there’s too many guys who’s in as good a shape as I am, so that’s not the (issue).”